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For adoptees like me, still denied our basic rights, there is no ‘new Ireland’

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Call for action: Mary McGill. Photo by Julia Dunin

Call for action: Mary McGill. Photo by Julia Dunin

Call for action: Mary McGill. Photo by Julia Dunin

In my early twenties, a social worker told me my voice was very similar to my mother’s. Sitting in the office of the Catholic agency that arranged my adoption, I was taken aback and intrigued. Having never met my birth mother, I had no idea what she sounded like.

After the agency’s initial attempt at contact via letter was sent to the wrong woman, the social worker had spoken to my mother by phone. It was a conversation I could only dream of having.

Like many people whose lives have been forever shaped by the mother and baby system, I’ve spent this week reflecting on such moments, particularly the notion that they are ‘history’.

As a child in the 1990s, I watched activists like Christine Buckley on The Late Late Show telling their stories of institutional abuse. Later, I studied Mary Raftery’s work and Steve Humphries’ documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, aghast that something as natural as sex could destroy women’s lives so utterly.

Although I hadn’t yet connected these stories to my own, this ‘history’ seemed strangely present. It was frequently in the media, many of those affected were clearly still alive and there was no mention of it in my history books at school.

A millennial born in the 1980s in the largest ‘home’, St Patrick’s on the Navan Road in Dublin, I’m one of the thousands of adoptees from the later stages of the system who are now in their 20s, 30s and 40s. For us, as with survivors of these institutions from across the 20th century, this past is our present.

In recent years, the idea of a progressive, open-minded ‘modern’ Ireland has gained traction, but for adoptees, there is no new Ireland. Basic rights like access to our birth certificate are still denied to us.

The enduring silence and obfuscation about our origins — the legacy of Catholic theocracy — means we lack medical and genetic information most people take for granted, with potentially dire repercussions for ourselves and our loved ones.

Tracing biological families can take years and there is no guarantee that information will be forthcoming. By contrast, since 1975 in England and Wales and 1987 in Northern Ireland adoptees can access their records once they turn 18.

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As harrowing as this week has been, it also represents a long overdue reckoning, one built on the backs of survivors and tireless allies like Catherine Corless who have spent years fighting for justice. They have voiced major concerns about the nature and outcome of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission’s report, and those concerns must be heeded.

I never did get to hear my mother’s voice. We corresponded but never met. The complex emotional gulf opened by shame and separation proved difficult to bridge. She died suddenly 10 years ago. In my grief, I realised I had lost her twice.

Mine is one of tens of thousands of such losses that need never have happened, losses that have been compounded by the indifference of successive governments, the Catholic Church and Irish society. Apologies, however well meant, come too late for too many. What matters most now is action, not words.


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